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Smart Mobs mini-blog: Mobile Devices as Display Posted on 10/25/2002.

In Smart Mobs, Howard discusses how, in group settings, Scandinavian teenagers flash SMS messages they've received to others, or pass the phone around, and he quotes study that claimed, "the physical appearance of the phone...held symbolic value..."

This got me thinking about how these phones have a certain "fashion"able aspect, above and beyond their functional qualities. Showing others messages you've received is something of an inversion of how we think of these devices, which is to assume these devices are "private," providing information and communication to its owner, and to no one else.

This, in turn, made me think of an MIT Media Lab project I saw demonstrated at CHI 1998, Thinking Tags (unfortunately, the passing of time has lead to a lack of cohesion of the information about Thinking Tags). One of the Tags creators, Richard Borovoy, talked about his frustration with "Wearable Computing," which augmented only the wearer's experience, and, typically, made the wearer look like a weirdo to everyone else. He wanted to turn that around, and using computer technology to augment appearance, to put technology to use in encouraging social relationships, not further cocooning us.

(I've written about Thinking Tags before.)

Thinking tags work by being filled with information about their wearers. When two people wearing Thinking Tags are in proximity, their tags can exchange information (say, send business cards, etc.), or perhaps highlight interesting commonalities that could encourage introduction (say, alert both people that they are graduates of the same university).

Of potential interest is Richard Borovoy's Ph.D. thesis, "Folk Computing: Designing Technology to Support Face-to-Face Community Building" (big PDF), with this abstract:

Creating common ground in a community of people who do not all know each other is a chickenand-
egg problem: members do not share enough common ground to support the kinds of
conversations that help build it. “Folk Computing” technology is designed to help build
community in informal, face-to-face settings by giving users a playful way of revealing shared
assumptions and interests. Drawing on the communicative process found in folklore, Folk
Computing devices facilitate the creation, circulation and tracking of new, digital forms of lore.
These digital folklore objects serve as social probes: they circulate among people with whom they
resonate, thereby revealing the boundaries of groups who share the underlying beliefs, knowledge
and experiences that give the lore meaning.
Folk Computing uses technology to enhance the community building functions of folklore in
three important ways: it supports the circulation of more interactive and media-rich lore, it
reduces the social and cognitive costs of folklore creation and circulation, and it enables detailed
visualizations of how pieces of lore circulate through a community. This thesis will explore the
potential of Folk Computing through a design rationale for three new technologies, ranging from
computationally augmented name tags used at conferences (Thinking Tags and Meme Tags) to
devices with which people can create, trade and track animations and simple games (i-balls), used
over several weeks by the population of a K-8 public school.
I know that later in the book, Howard discusses the (in)famous Lovegety, a Japanese product designed to encourage the fomentation of romantic relationships -- owners input their data, and what they're looking for, and if two Lovegetys in proximity "match," they're owners are signalled.

One of the things that's becoming increasingly apparent about our near future world is that people, stores, objects, all manner of things will be surrounded by data clouds, expressing data about that Thing, and that as these clouds interact, they'll talk to each other, sniff each other out, looking for matches (or things to avoid). We'll wander around with invisible layers of metadata enveloping us. It'll be interesting to see how we utilize this further augmentation of our appearance...

10 comments so far. Add a comment.

Previous entry: "Don't Get Me Wrong, I'm flattered..."
Next entry: "Smart Mobs mini-blog: Mobile Phone Conversation Dissonance"


I was excited by Borovoy's work and he was definitely one of the most interesting people I've encountered at Media Lab. I read and reread "Fok Computing." I took pages of notes when I interviewed Borovoy. I think his work is very significant in the way it combines simple toy-like devices, pervasive computing, and social networks. But I worked hard to make Smart Mobs a short book, and a lot hit the cutting room floor. When I get some time to breathe, I hope to go through my notes and put some of the material up on the Smart Mobs blog.

I hope he is able to continue his work. If you think about Gladwell's ideas in The Tipping Point, about the ways ideas spread through populations, Borovoy's devices could be very interesting probes.
Posted by Howard Rheingold @ 10/27/2002 10:07 AM PST [link to this comment]

(interesting slip. "Folk Computing!" not "Fok Computing." The perils of posting without previewing.)
Posted by Howard Rheingold @ 10/27/2002 10:08 AM PST [link to this comment]

I'll have to wait until my Amazoned copy of "Smart Mobs" arrives in Tokyo to comment meaningfully on it, and I hope this comment doesn't recapitulate any of the material in it, but does anyone remember (Still there at the same URL if you want to go have a look.)

This was (all too) conventional clothing imprinted with a unique identification code; the idea was that you'd see some cutie at a club, on the Bart, etc., rocking the Skim-enhanced togs, log in to the site, and initiate a relationship.

I always found this a rather sweet idea, although just as obviously prone to the usual stalkeresque abuses, and I bring it up now by way of pointing out that we needn't rely on latent data clouds and other trappings of ubicomp to give our technologies a social dimension.

It doesn't quite have the self-organizing sexiness of auto-catalyzing, keitai-wielding demonstrators, but the Skim model is certainly one way this can happen. And as you've experienced yourself, Peter, blogs have been known to launch relationships, in a way other sorts of Web sites palpably do not. (Something about the unmistakeable presence of the human voice there, I'm betting.)
Posted by Adam Greenfield @ 10/27/2002 05:36 PM PST [link to this comment]

Just recently, Swatch has launched a new wrist watch ( ) that enables people to test their compatibility but not to exchange or compare their data clouds. The whole process do not happen in only one device (the watch), because the computer is used as a complementary or sometimes a stand-alone device to not only to support some functionalities that cannot be done in the watch (the profile definition test that will be then stored in the watch to be compared with other watches) but also extensions of the concept that is behind this (meeting other users through the web).
At the end, what is really important is the aim behind this technology and in which way it is used by the users to establish relationships, leaving the aesthetics and the emotional aspects to the devices, no matter how many of them are used.
Posted by Enric Gili Fort @ 10/28/2002 03:03 AM PST [link to this comment]

Has any thought been given to the possibility of these concepts resulting in some people being excluded? I can see a person's data cloud being full of information that would tell anyone, "Don't bother."

If you are able to read right away if someone doesn't share your interests, you will make no attempt to find any common ground, the kind of thing that often results in friendship between dissimilar people, which isn't a bad thing. My worry is that Thinking Tags and their ilk, while they may bring people together, may also keep people apart.
Posted by Dave Parker @ 10/28/2002 04:31 AM PST [link to this comment]

Same as Adam about the Smart Mobs book. It's tough sometimes to live on the (connected) borders of the empire. ;)

Mobile devices and their users are an endless source of inspiration.
The blurring boundaries between what's considered private and what's perceived as public are inherent qualities of a tool that's used in public but is profoundly private in nature.
This split-personality drives a powerful mixture of achieving differentiation in a social context where users usually want to be considered "members".
There's a need to belong to a community and to stand out at the same time that's evident with all things mobile.

Would there be a market for custom ring-tones if no-one except the owner could hear them?

The same holds true for personalized phone covers among kids in Europe or all the furry thingies Japanese teen-agers attach to their keitai(s) to make them their own.
Incidentally what Richard Borovoy says about "...his frustration with Wearable Computing which augmented only the wearer's experience, and, typically, made the wearer look like a weirdo to everyone else..." holds true for these kids as well.
I guess that too can be part of the experience...i may want to look like a weirdo to everyone except people in my social group.

BTW for more "civilized" ways of approaching wearables MIT/IDEO's old effort ( is still one of the most successful in matching functionality to an appealing design I believe.

On the "Thinking Tags" side all the great work/examples done by Philips Design with their 1997 "Vision of the future" project definitely come to mind.

Particularly fitting here are the "Emotional Communicators" ( and "Hot Badges" (

Just like the MIT/IDEO example I believe the reason why these object speak to us better than the high-tech concoctions of "traditional" wearable computing is that they do not try to speak about a world where technology is forced with its inherent values (esthetics among them) on people, but where it fits in people's lives effortlessly.

my 2-cents worth.
Posted by fabio sergio @ 10/28/2002 04:52 AM PST [link to this comment]

The latest in "civilized" wearable computing:

Now -that's- device-as-display.

Posted by @ 10/30/2002 12:15 PM PST [link to this comment]

"...highly popular with teens all over Japan"? I don't think so.

I live in Shibuya-ku - ground zero for this sort of thing - and I have never seen so much as a single pair. Furthermore, I somehow doubt that these would fly many places outside Tokyo; I certainly can't see your average Niigata teenager rocking the Gameboy boots, fr ex.
Posted by AG @ 10/31/2002 09:03 PM PST [link to this comment]

Dave Parker raises the issue of social exclusion, which I think is worth some thought. Exclusion and inclusion seem to me to be somewhat complementary. That is, in-groups often promote solidarity (and increase intra-group cooperation), by making it clear to group members who is NOT in the group. In a larger sense, conflict with an out-group seems to be one of the ratchets for the evolution of cooperation within groups.

Great comments here. I'm learning a lot.
Posted by Howard Rheingold @ 11/01/2002 02:00 PM PST [link to this comment]

     Does anyone but me think walking about in a cloud of data is about as useful as walking around in a cloud of cheap perfume and bad cologne? Don't you automatically know when you walk into a room who's going to be interesting? And aren't you pleasantly surprised when someone you misjudged turns out to be way cool?
     Do you think peoples' data clouds are going to be any more honest and insightful than the small talk we make now? Oh brother.
     I know that eventually something will force me to adopt these technologies, but until then, I can do without it, thanks.
     And by the way, a little bit of new jargon for consideration...
Posted by Bucky Edgett @ 11/05/2002 09:44 PM PST [link to this comment]

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